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Odysseus, Off Course in the Baltic Sea

Odysseus, Off Course in the Baltic Sea


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Homer’s Odyssey tells of the adventures of the ancient seasoned mariner, Odysseus, hero of the Trojan War, who offended Poseidon and as a result was cursed to sail the seas and prolong his journey home to the isle of Ithaca and his queen Penelope, with 10 years. Although it is generally assumed that Odysseus and his band of brothers, zig-zagged the Mediterranean Sea on their ill-fated voyage, ancient and modern scholars are divided on the exact modern locations of Odysseus’ ports of call. Steering completely off course however, some authors propose that Odysseus could have lost his way in the Baltic Sea.

Head of Odysseus from a sculptural group representing Odysseus blinding Polyphemus. From the villa of Tiberius at Sperlonga. Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Sperlonga

"The man rich in cunning tells me, O Muse, that for a long time
he made a mistake after he had destroyed the sacred fortress of Troy;
Of many men the cities saw and knew the mind,
many pains suffered in the heart on the sea,
"fighting for his life and for the return of his..." (
Homer: Odyssey)

Did the astute Odysseus sail not so much between the islands of the Aegean and across the Mediterranean Sea to the Pillars of Hercules, but rather navigated the Baltic Sea, north of Europe, between fjords and mists?

Odysseus removing his men from the company of the lotus-eaters. Unknown engraving

Odysseus’ Regular Itinerary

Odysseus is the Homeric hero elected, symbolizing mankind's irrepressible adventurous desire to gain knowledge, to cross every barrier, every obstacle between Man and Knowledge. The accepted traditional version of the Odyssey is after the taking of Troy, Odysseus and his men first called on the Land of Cicones (Thrace) to stock up on provisions for their journey home, but his men looted the city and angered the gods, who blew him off course to the land of the Lotus Eaters (identified by Herodotus as possibly Libya or by historian Polybius as the island Djerba, off Tunisia); from where he sailed to the island of the Cyclopses (Sicily). He escaped the one-eyed Polythemis by disguising his men as sheep and landed on the island Aeolia, home of the wind god (Aeolian isles, north coast of Sicily).

Aeolus and Odysseus Tapisserie de basse lisse, Aubusson vers 1650, d'après Isaac Moillon (Cité tapisserie / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Favored by the god, Odysseus sails within sight of Ithaca but his men opened the forbidden windbag and he is blown to Telepylos (Mount Etna, Sicily).


We Followed Odysseus

Ithaca on the western shore of Greece. The distance there from Troy, Hal Roth tells us, is only 565 nautical miles. But due to some celebrated doings (and undoings), Odysseus wound up logging several thousand sea miles along the way. He got home, to be sure, but the journey took ten years.

Hal and Margaret Roth made the same trip in two, with time out to winter in Malta. They roamed the eastern Mediterranean in the 35-foot sloop Whisper, hungry for real and mythical history. Armed with half a lifetime’s sailing experience, equipped with the latest navigation gear, up to their necks in charts, treatises and translations of the Robert Fagles), they followed his presumed route, rowing ashore for fun, fresh water and local research wherever he was supposed to have landed.

Setting out from Troy in Turkey, at the mouth of the Dardanelles, the Roths land, at last, in Ithaca, where Odysseus, after a good meal and a warm bloodbath (briskly administered to Penelope’s suitors), at last gets to bed with his ultra-patient wife.

Happily for readers, along the watery way Roth not only synthesizes the salty lore of famous scholars and seamen, like Lionel Casson and Ernle Bradford, but retells much of the Odyssey in brisk and knowing prose.

This is important. The narrative is chronologically intricate. Its best parts are not about sailing, or our hero’s grim and goofy goings-on with man-eating monsters and sirens, but involve prewar politics in Ithaca, and Odysseus’ tricky homecoming.

Like the Iliad, the Odyssey may have been written by Homer, who may or may not have been blind, or by a committee of poets. Whoever put it together did so more than 400 years after the siege of Troy, which probably happened about 1200 B.C. Despite that gap, the story often describes Odysseus’ landfalls so precisely that oceans of scholarly ink have been expended, and thousands of nautical miles sailed, by passionate folk like the Roths trying to pin-point his progress around the Mediterranean world.

Odysseus seems to have set out with more than 600 men in 12 "black" ships. All 12 eventually were wrecked. Except for our hero, all the men were smashed up, drowned or eaten alive. Of course, the sea god Poseidon had it in for Odysseus. Roth makes clear, however, that even without being turned into swine, spending seven years with the wrong woman (see Calypso) and the sea god’s baleful attentions, the Greek way home might have proved to be one long nautical nightmare.

Those dramatically "black" ships were black because they had to be treated with pitch almost daily to keep them more or less waterproof. Little more than fragile 55-foot war canoes, they were light enough to be handily hauled out on any beach. They swamped easily in heavy seas and carried a scrap of square-rigged sail, good only to run before the wind going to windward at all required 20 oarsmen. This pretty much entailed coastwise sailing or island-hopping, near enough to land to run up on a beach in storm weather, to spend the night, or even go ashore for lunch.

Today some of Odysseus’ presumed landfalls are full of tourists, lavish hotels and tiers of new villas. Some are backwaters with no electricity or potable water. The Mediterranean is always beautiful, however, and many coasts the Roths sailed were lonely and lovely. For this reader at least, one particular stop, the little port of Bonifacio on the south coast of Corsica, was a wonderful surprise, as well as a convincing proof of how literally Homer’s text can sometimes be relied upon. This is where surly Laestrygonians, hurling boulders down from towering cliffs, sank 11 of the Greek ships. Bonifacio’s harbor, Roth writes, "is one of the few places in the Mediterranean with complete shelter behind high cliffs the anchorage mirrors Homer’s description: ‘A harbor ringed on all sides by precipitous cliffs, with a narrow entrance channel between two bold headlands.’" Charts and photographs make clear how easily you could simply drop great rocks on vessels moored below.

We Followed Odysseus is a fine book for sailors and armchair travelers alike. You can’t open it without the urge to read (or reread) the Odyssey. Cruising sailors could do worse than begin dreaming of a future trip with Roth aboard for sailing instructions, an estimable companion until landfall is reached at clear-watered Ithaca.


Background to the Iliad

The Iliad is a summary in verse of what was apparently a very long war conducted against Troy by the Greeks. As in much myth, there is a kernel of reality behind it. That there was such a war is quite likely. It would have made sense for predecessors of the ancient Greeks to conduct a war against the city in order to gain control of the Dardanelles, the water passage between the Mediterranean and Black seas. Had Troy, located near this waterway, been a hostile power, the destruction of it might have enabled the Greeks to colonize the west coast of Asia Minor. The Trojan War probably took place sometime between 1250 and 1185 bc .

For many centuries it was believed that the Iliad was a piece of imaginative and inventive fiction. In 1870, however, the German scholar Heinrich Schliemann began excavations at the place where Troy was believed to have stood.

He satisfied himself, and eventually the rest of the world, that there had actually been a war fought there. The excavations revealed that several cities had stood on the spot before the one Homer celebrated.

Altogether, Schliemann and his successors found the ruins of nine cities built atop one another over a period of 3,500 years. Homer’s Troy was the seventh city. Ruins of its great walls, 16 feet (5 meters) thick, and flanking towers still remained.


The Brothers Brick

Those lucky enough to go to Brickworld Chicago this year were treated to VirtuaLUG‘s story time with their incredible 300 square foot retelling of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.


This amazing collaborative layout tells the story of the Greek hero Odysseus and his 10 year adventure home after the battle of Troy. Feel free to take the video tour of this massive Layout, courtesy of our friends at Beyond the Brick:

VirtuaLUG of course is the mega-group that brought us Lord of the Rings (2011), Alice in Wonderland (2012) and The Wizard of Oz (2013). So it came as no surprise that they took home Brickworld’s top prize (and Master Builder to boot!):

VirtuaLUG (Not pictured: Bart, Kevin, Kyle, Mark and Leo)

The Aegean Sea built by: Adam Stasiek
The setting of Homer’s Odyssey takes place in various islands in the Aegean Sea, but instead of having base plates or blue tarp, Adam decided to cover the entire 300 square foot layout (you read that right – 300 sqft) with 1ࡧ dots weaved with some lifelites to add some sparkle at night.

City of Troy built by: Chris Phipson
The story of Odysseus and his Odyssey starts at of the battle of Troy where, after a ten year siege, Odysseus comes up with the idea for using a gift of a giant wooden horse to finally enter the city:

The city of Troy is complete with all the historical details such as a market, a fully functional water fountain, and of course “the face that launched a thousand ships”: Helen of Troy.

The Trojan Horse built by Matt Rowntree, was a large wooden horse which was presented as a trophy to Troy, but secretly hid a small Greek army.

The Greek Fleet built by: Matt Rowntree
As part of the Trojan Horse decoy, the Greeks pretended to sail away only to return under cover of darkness after the gates of Troy had been opened by the men in the Trojan Horse.

Matt designed the Greek boats, including the Phaeacian, and built 13 ships. The rest of VirtuaLUG used his design to build the remainder of the ships. Matt also hand-sewed all the sails and drew the various designs, including the famous Chicago Bears raft from antiquity.

Lotus Eaters built by: Dennis Price
After the battle Troy, Odysseus and his twelve ships set off for home but got blown off course, landing on the island of the Lotus Eaters. Despite Odysseus’ warning not to eat the fruit, his men did so and lapsed into a state of lotus-drug-induced lethargy.

“I envisioned the Isle of the Lotus Eaters to be something you might find off the coast of North Africa. I didn’t want columns and such, which would be too Greek. It’s a bit of hippy-dippy heaven with limited access from the sea and plenty of lotus plants to eat and get high up in. Odysseus had to drag three of his men back to the boat because they ate the flowers offered them and became so drugged they didn’t want to leave.” – Dennis

Polyphemus the Cyclops built by: Mark Kelso
After their time with the Lotus Eaters, Odysseus and his men were captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, son of Poseidon. After getting Polyphemus drunk on wine, Odysseus blinded the Cyclops and escaped disguised as a sheep. Later, Polyphemus asked his father Poseidon to curse Odysseus to not return to Ithaca for 10 years.

Island of Aeolus built by: Kevin Lauer and Dave Sterling
After the escape from Polyphemus, Odysseus and his crew stayed with Aeolus the master of winds, who gave Odysseus a bag containing all the winds, except the west wind. The west wind would take them home to Ithaca, but as they almost got home the curiosity of Odysseus’ men got the better of them and they opened the bag. The unleashed winds drove them back to Aeolus, who refused to the help Odysseus a second time.

The island itself has a functional water fountain and of course the bag of wind (made from Mirkwood spiderweb cocoons). Though this build wasn’t completed by Brickworld and some of the rockwork was still missing on Thursday night, thankfully Dave was around to lend a hand:

I got drunk and helped Kevin build a mountain. It was fun. – Dave

Island of the Laestrygonians built by: Tyler Halliwell
Odysseus and his fleet re-embarked and encountered the giant cannibalistic Laestrygonians. They destroyed all of Odysseus’ ships with rocks. The only ship that escaped was Odysseus’s own. At 6𔄂, it was quite appropriate that Tyler – VirtuaLUG‘s actual giant – built the island of the giants!

Circe’s Island built by: Millie McKenzie
Odysseus and his crew then visited the Circe. She turned half of his men into swine after feeding them cheese and wine. Hermes warned Odysseus about Circe and gave Odysseus a drug which gave him a resistance to Circe’s magic. Circe, surprised by Odysseus’ resistance, agreed to change his men back to their human form in return for Odysseus’ love. They remained with her on the island for one year, while they feasted and drank.

Of all the buildings on the layout, I think this one was my favorite I really loved how Millie added the bas-relief on her buildings.

This was also especially impressive given that this particular module traveled all the way from New Zealand:

All things considered it survived quite well. 20+ hours in the air, 30+ hours traveling in total with all the airport waiting around, 3 flights, 6 baggage loads and unloads, 2 taxi rides, and it only took me about 5 or so hours to rebuild. I think that’s a success. I didn’t want to risk shipping it. Them postal alligators eat LEGO for breakfast then spit it out in a heap. – Millie

Hall of Hades built by: Lee Jones, Leo J. and Adam Reed Tucker
Odysseus then travels deep into the underworld to ask for advice on how to appease the gods to let him return home. He meets blind seer Tiresias, Agamemnon, Achilles and his mother before returning to the land of the living.

This was among my favorite areas of the display, this stunning section not only is a fantastic build (and huge – 192 X 192 studs!), but there’s some fantastic features as well, including the rotating portal, a floating magnetic platform (check out the video!), and all of it sitting on a giant piece of Plexiglas with black lights underneath.

Sailing through the underworld is Adam’s Boatman’s boat:

And of course let’s not forget everyone’s favorite undeworld pet Cerberus, built by Leo J:

Island of the Sirens built by: Dave Kaleta
Odysseus’ ship skirted the land of the Sirens, who sang an enchanting song that normally caused passing sailors to steer toward the rocks, only to hit them and sink. Odysseus wanted to be the only living mortal to hear the Siren’s song, so he had his men tie him to the mast while they plugged their ears with beeswax.

My goal for the island was to show both a natural and supernatural reason why so many boats crashed on the island. The Sirens themselves were the supernatural reason. I tried to hint that the island was a giant monster with fingers pulling the boats into its giant gaping maw. Other than that, my goal was to make the island a mix of lushness but foreboding by the color choices of vegetation (I stuck with sand green and olive green in place of standard green). -Dave

Scylla and Charybdis built by: HMFIC Kevin Walter
Odysseus and his men passed between the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, Odysseus losing six men to Scylla.

While it might not seem like a big contribution, it should be pointed out that not all contributions are in the form of bricks: Kevin was the Head “Person” In Charge of the collaboration, and lead the group in the background.

Isle of Helios built by: Kyle Peterson and Bryan Bonahoom
Odysseus landed on the island of Thrinacia. When they tried to leave, Zeus caused a storm which prevented them leaving. While Odysseus was away praying, his men ignored the warnings of Tiresias and Circe, and hunted down the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios, as their food had run short. The Sun God insisted that Zeus punish the men for this sacrilege and struck down Odysseus’s ship with a lightning bolt.

This section was particularly nice as it also had an underwater scene complete with motorized sharks spinning around:

And Zeus’ lightning bolt looked fantastic during Brickworld’s Festival of Lights:

Isle of Calypso built by: Heath Flor
Washed ashore on the island of Calypso, Odysseus was compelled to remain there as her lover until she was ordered by Zeus, via Hermes, to release him.

Ithaca built by: Hans Dendauw and Betsy Sandberg
Finally! Having listened with rapt attention to his story, the Phaeacians, who were skilled mariners, agree to help Odysseus get home to Ithaca. After a quell with suitors who had been pursuing his wife Penelope, they all lived happily ever after…

Mount Olympus built by: Bart Larrow
All the while, at the center of the layout sits Mount Olympus – the temple of the Gods – where gods watched Odysseus’ long Odyssey.

Of course in standard Bart fashion, Mount Olympus has functional rotating clouds (check out the behind the scenes photos). For those of you who were at Brickworld last year, you might remember Bart’s memorable Dorthy’s house in a Tornado which was arguably the most amusing nomination for Best Air Ship in Brickworld history!

And of course the temple of the Gods shimmers in the night:

But the story of how the VirtuaLUG built The Odyssey is in itself an epic tale. While the final product looked like a well-polished masterpiece, there were many missteps along the way, from ambiguous building standards, to derailed and sprawling threads, and some deceptively difficult to unpack MOCs. Plus some miscommunication about how many tables to build (“hey where’s my table?”) and even a few empty spaces:

There was a large dead space between Tyler’s island of the Lystragonians and Lee’s Hades that Danette Jones came up with the brilliant idea of filling with rocks and a graveyard of ships. Dennis and I wrecked two boats (extras I built just in case) and added the rocks and some flotsam and jetsam. I also tore up two sails and burnt the edges to give it a weathered look. It was a really effective resolution – Matt

But in the end, VirtuaLUG’s teamwork and problem-solving skills easily overcame all these issues and we were treated with a truly fantastic and memorable build. And if you’re curious how VirtuaLUG is able to keep doing this year after year, Chris gives us a bit of insight:

That’s the beautiful thing about this LUG, we’re not a group, but a family. We’ve been the best of friends for years, and that’s what really sets us apart here. We’re not just the local Chicago LUG, or local Toronto LUG, or wherever the LUG is. We came together because we like each other first, we were friends first. And the ideas came and grew from that and from our friendship. That’s what brings us together here, and what makes us able to produce these things that get bigger and bigger each year … so next year it has to be a bigger and better story and it’s got to be more involved … but the general consensus with VirtuaLUG is go big, or go home! – Chris


The suitors is a group made up of 108 noblemen, each of whom is vying for Ithaca's throne and Penelope’s hand in marriage. Each suitor mentioned by name in the poem has distinct traits. For example, Antinous is violent and arrogant he is the first suitor Odysseus slays. The wealthy and fair Eurymachus is sometimes referred to as “god-like.” Another suitor, Ctesippus, is rude and judgmental: he mocks Odysseus when he arrives in Ithaca disguised as a beggar.

Various residents of Ithaca, including servants in the home of Penelope and Odysseus, play a key role in the narrative.

Eumaeus is the faithful swineherd of Odysseus. When Odysseus arrives in Ithaca disguised as a beggar, Eumaeus does not recognize him, but still offers him his coat this act is a sign of Eumaeus' goodness.

Eurycleia, the housekeeper and Odysseus' former wet nurse, recognizes the disguised Odysseus upon his return to Ithaca thanks to the scar on Odysseus' leg.

Laertes is Odysseus’ elderly father. He lives in seclusion, overwhelmed by grief at the disappearance of Odysseus, until Odysseus returns to Ithaca.

Melanthius the goatherd, betrays his household by joining the suitors and disrespects a disguised Odysseus. Likewise, his sister Melanthos, Penelope’s servant, has an affair with the suitor Eurymachus.


Odysseus, Off Course in the Baltic Sea - History

The Christianization of the Balts

History is written by the victors. They have an exclusivity to the &ldquotruth", determining who was right and who was wrong, and specifying who had what virtues and sins. The Christianization of the Balts &ndash the tribes of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the now extinguished Prussians, is none other. We hear that Christianity brought culture to these savage tribes, and with the help of their Christian faith the Balts joined European civilization.

Let us see what Christianity really meant for the fate of the Baltic nations.

The Demise of A Once Strong Nation

The Baltic tribes were among the oldest inhabitants in Europe. In antiquity they occupied a much larger area than their contemporary descendants. The Baltic lands stretched much further to the west, to the eastern shores of the Wysla river (now in Poland), as well as further eastwards, about 100 kms beyond the present Lithuanian and Latvian border with Belarus.

The conquest of the Baltic tribes began after the Crusades in the Holy Land suffered disastrous setbacks. After the crusaders lost Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, their eyes were set on the last pagan areas in Europe. The first crusaders appeared on the eastern shores of the Baltic sea in 1202 and settled in the Daugava delta. They established the castle and the city of Riga, now capital of Latvia. This branch of crusaders was originally called the Brothers of the Sword, later renamed the Livonian Order.

Several hundred kilometers southward, in what is now the Kaliningrad district, another branch of crusaders settled. This one was called the Teutonic Order. Established in Acre in the Holy Land between 1120 and 1128, the order was centered in Swabia after the defeat in Jerusalem in 1187. The remnant of crusaders, with a strengthening from the German-speaking lands, came to Prussia and established strongholds at Konigsberg and Marienburg. They gradually started to occupy the lands of the indigenous Prussian tribes. At the first stage the crusaders found some willing assistance. They offered protection to weaker tribes and thus played the indigenous people against each other. This helped them to secure their presence on the shores of the Baltic sea.

In 1236, after the battle of Saule, the northern branch of crusaders suffered a major defeat and consequently merged with their southern counterparts. After 1250, those two military states had firmly established themselves and started to make inroads into the neighbouring lands in all possible directions. They were equally eager to assault not only on the pagan tribes, but the Christian Poles and Russians as well. For more than 200 years, all neighbouring nations, regardless of their faith, suffered continuous raids from the militant crusaders.

What motives brought those newcomers to the eastern shores of the Baltic sea?

There were several. An orthodox argument (as, for example, claimed by William Urban) is that the Hansa merchants were keen to promote trade with the interior. However, this argument is not compelling because the Baltic tribes were open to trade, and even Roman historians mentioned that the Empire was trading with the Balts, bringing in amber from the Baltic sea for jewelry and decoration. There is no evidence that the Balts were reluctant to trade by the time the crusaders settled in their lands.

A second, more realistic, motive was religious opportunism. The popes at that time were suffering from the depredations of knights who had returned from Jerusalem. Crusaders were robbing their native lands, and the popes were eager to send them out again, further away. The natural choice was the Baltics &ndash not very distant, a region where the tribes were divided and culturally, though not militarily, undeveloped.

The third motive, arguably the main one, was plunder. The popes rewarded the militant monks one-third of the lands they conquered. One-third went to the church, to be governed by the archbishop. The regular soldiers of the Order were peasants who were eager to escape slavery back home. They could choose to leave their masters and give their allegiance to the Church. Thus, they became fighting monks, committed to a monastic life, while also being ready to fight in the name of their God.

Nobles were drawn to the crusades in order to establish their military prowess. A young nobleman who defeated and killed infidels was highly esteemed back home and advanced in his career. Thus, hordes of fighters from all ranks of society were incessantly drawn to fight for the church.

The first major blow from the Crusaders befell the coastal Baltic tribes of Prussians and Curonians. As mentioned before, at first the crusaders played on inter-tribal quarrels and thus strengthened their own hold on the coastal region. This moderate period lasted to about 1250, by which time the crusaders were firmly established in the new lands.

1250 &ndash 1300 was the period when both sides were strengthening their forces. Crusaders managed to subjugate most Prussians and Latvians. Those chiefs who agreed to convert to Christianity were offered protection and full rights to abuse their people as much as they liked. In 1291, when the Crusader State was expelled form the Holy Land, all the Christian fervour to expand the faith and lands turned on the Balts. It became the central front of the crusades. Ever larger numbers of fighters were drawn from Western Europe.

On the other side, however, a concentration of forces also took place. Lithuanians, the strongest of the Baltic tribes, managed to establish a central rule by 1253. The capital of the new state was established in Vilnius. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania had a rather easy time with crusaders by 1300 and it took the opportunity to expand to the east. The conditions were extremely favourable. The eastern Slavs were suffering from the brutal Mongol-Tatars, and were eager to accept the rule of pagan but tolerant Lithuanians. The Lithuanians left their Slavic subordinates more or less to their own devises, demanding only soldiers and limited tributes.

By this time the pattern of how crusaders were expanding their influence was settled. At first they would try to convince the tribes to accept the one true God and save themselves from fallacies. This seldom worked. At the next stage they would come back with the sword and force submission. This meant to accept Christianization or die. Those who agreed to receive the Lord as Saviour would be subjugated to work for the Order or for the Archbishop. Crusaders would explain that subservience to the Lord meant working diligently for His cause, and this meant that a peasant must save none of his efforts on this righteous path.

Needless to say, not all newly-made &ldquoChristians&rdquo subscribed to this philosophy. In the lands of the Order, rebellions were continuous. The strongest was in Prussia in 1260 &ndash 1274, led by Herkus Monte. This rebellion was nearly successful, which would have crushed the Crusader state altogether. However, this happened only much later, after the Christianization of Lithuania in 1387.

By 1300, both Prussian and Livonian Crusaders crushed the resistance of the subjugated tribes and set their eyes on the only pagan tribe left in Europe &ndash the Lithuanians. 1300 &ndash 1400 was a period of ceaseless nasty and merciless warfare. Both sides were strong enough and no one could achieve victory in one blow. It became a war of small raids and plunder. The crusaders would march to the Lithuanian periphery two to three times a year, with the Lithuanians returning about one raid a year. Both sides looted the land of the enemy and killed indiscriminately in a spiral of mounting hatred.

A Lithuanian etymologist Ginatras Beresnevicius estimates that as a result of this uncompromised warfare the death toll was about one million Balts. The casualties among the Western Europeans are unknown to the author of this article. Of course the carnage impacted very heavily the economy of Lithuania. All resources were mobilized to withstand the continuously increasing military pressure.

On the battle field both sides were equal, yet the Crusaders enjoyed a slight advantage in castle-building technology. This edge proved decisive in the course of time. Lithuanians found it ever-harder to seize crusader castles, while the Germans – most of the crusaders were speakers of German – were more successful at that. The turning point in this warfare was the seizure of the castle of Kaunas in 1362, a stronghold built between two big rivers, the Nemunas and the Neris, at a point of utmost strategic importance. With only 100 km left to the capital of Vilnius, Lithuanians started to contemplate that their defeat was but a matter of time.

In 1386, the Polish nobility invited the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila (Jogiela in Polish) to take the Polish throne on condition that he and his people became Christianized. Jogaila agreed, and in 1387 the official Christianization of Lithuania took place. The western part of Lithuania, Samogitia, rejected it and was Christianized only in 1413. This late date is when the whole of the European continent was brought under the Christian rule.

Right after the Christianization, the military might of the Teutonic Order started to fade. They no longer received support from Western Europe. The military balance quickly shifted, and in 1410 the joint forces of Lithuanians, Poles and Russians defeated the Order entirely.

However, this does not mean that the resistance to Christianity was over. In the wake of Christianity, the Baltic tribes were enslaved. The free peasants and warriors were turned into serfs. They were instructed that being a true Christian means working hard for their master. In Christianized Lithuania, it meant to labour for their former military chief, now turned landlord, or the bishop. The priest was called after the ancient Lithuanian word &lsquokunigas&rsquo, which formerly meant military chief (the root this word is related with Konig, king in other indo-European languages).

The nobility accepted the new faith readily. For them it was a new era of limitless exploitation of their former comrades in battle. But the folk resistance was intense. Throughout the two centuries of ceaseless warfare Lithuania attracted all those neighbouring tribesmen who refused to be subjugated to Christianity. People continued to worship their old gods in secret. Rebellions would spring out continuously. Among them, the rebellion of Samogitia (Western Lithuania) in 1418, 1441 throughout all of Lithuania, 1506 in Southern Lithuania, 1536 in Samogitia, 1544-45 in Eastern Lithuania. Those are but the first peasant rebellions against their masters, they continued well into the 17th century.

Christianity brought its usual system of Inquisition and brutality. The only difference was that the persecutions were focused on peasants who refused to abandon their ancient traditions. During the period of Christian assaults, Lithuania had been separated from western Europe. This and the extreme military pressures hindered the development of towns.

Thus, the Inquisition met little opposition in towns and its focus was the subjugation of serfs. Not as easy a task as seemed at first. The opposition was mostly passive. People showed utmost piety in the presence of their priests, but returned to worship their old gods when they took their leave. The church demanded that everyone would attend Sunday service. Those who failed to show up were chained by their necks to the outer wall of the church and were cruelly whipped. The penalty for secret pagan worshiping, of course, was death. But, ironically, whenever a secret site of worship was discovered the men who sent to destroy it were usually reluctant to do so because they feared the revenge of the old gods. For example, cutting down a sacred tree was a very unattractive job.

Thus the battle against Christianity continued well after the official Christianization of Lithuania. Within their homes and deep in the forests the old worship continued well into the 17th and even 18th centuries. The oppressive system and vehement, albeit passive resistance, left a deep mark on the national mentality of Lithuanians. It is characterized by deep mistrust in officials and dualistic behaviour &ndash one official, one real. There are numerous records witnessing that the Church understood this attitude and was bemoaning the situation.

Johannes Poliander, a priest from Konigsberg, writes the following in 1535: &ldquoAt first many of them (Prussians) reluctantly gave in to the Pope, and today they accept the evangel, yet they continue to keep their old wicked customs in secret&rdquo. Jacob Lawinski, a jesuit from Lithuania, describes local people in 1583: &ldquoThose people were always drawn to religion. But bad faith and fallacies have spoilt them so much that they differed little from pagans&rdquo.

In Latvia in 1636, an evangelical Lutheran priest, criticizes too moderate, in his view, attempts to draw people away from their wicked habits:

&ldquoPeople were and remain idolaters, because Jesuits did little else but forced people to listen to their masses and to cry out for the saints &hellip hardheaded idolaters were tricking them because, when before their eyes, they played sincere Catholics, would listen to their sermons with great piety, and would kneel down with sheer humility. But once the priest would go, they would return to full paganism. Priests did not understand anything, and people would laugh at them.&rdquo


Even in 1775 G.Ostermeier in his &ldquoCritical Observations on the History of the Ancient Prussian Religion&rdquo writes of Lithuanians: &ldquoThis is the most superstitious nation among all Christians. They are so persistent that no measures bring desired fruits&rdquo.

Thus the old pagan tradition was carried almost to this day. Jonas Trinkunas in his book The Path of the Ancient Religion of Lithuanians mentions that the last adherent of the ancient religion died as recently as 1908. Up to this day neighbouring nations would call Lithuanians pagan, because of the remaining traces of ancient customs in daily life. But meaning it is of course a gross exaggeration. However, the contemporary mentality retains the strong impression that the heydays of this country were in the pagan past.

After the Christianization of Lithuania, the country suffered a steep demise. The advantage of pagan society was a strong central monarchy. In divided feudal Europe, this helped to withstand the pressure of all Western Europe for about 200 years. In the wake of Christianity, the balance of power moved to the nobility. Lithuania slowly degraded from being the biggest country in Europe (in the early 15th century) to a mere province of Poland. The joint republic in which the nobility enjoyed wide rights but faced little responsibilities fell into anarchy and was finally dismantled in 1795 after the neighbouring countries agreed to divide it between themselves.

Up to this day the attempt to Christianize this land has left deep scars in the mentality of the nation. Lithuanians remain suspicious of any outside influence, are too conservative, and always on guard in dealings with any authorities. Deep seated mistrust in public officials lingers on. Democratic mechanisms falter because of the remains of the serfdom mentality. After gaining independence in 1991, this nation fails to take a healthy part in social life because people expect a good master to come and solve problems for them. Instead, they get the exact opposite on a continuous basis &ndash abusive politicians rob the state and cheat the public. The population fails to realize that this situation is a result of their failure to act like real hosts in their land. Instead, they await a new saviour. Time and again.

Last but not least, I would like to mention one particular feature of the Lithuanian culture. After the population finally gave in to Christianity, which was roughly between early 1700 to 1800, the folk artists developed a unique branch of art &ndash they started to depict Jesus as an idol. Their Christ was usually seated, head lowered to one side, his chin backed up by his arm. This Jesus was sad and withdrawn, consumed by his inner sorrow. This was but a reflection of the psychological condition of the artist himself, or of the folk people in general.

The bottom line influence of Christianity in the Baltic countries is that it made people convinced that if they sit like their Jesus idol and do nothing, they are somehow morally superior to their oppressive masters. Uneducated, abused and neglected, it is but a last form of defense that they have at their disposal. Today Lithuanians and Latvians pay a heavy price. We must deal with this scar in our mentality. Too many people believe in what I would call &ldquoholy inactivity&rdquo &ndash if someone tries to abuse you, you sit passively, do nothing to defend yourself, but rather clench your hands and idly indulge your moral superiority, convincing yourself that you are somehow better than your oppressor. This phenomenon is something we will have to deal with in the nearest future.

Finally, what happened with the Prussians?

Prussians and Russians, apart from similar names, have nothing in common. The Prussian nation was finally subjugated by 1550, and then quickly lost its national identity - Germanized. The last Pruss died in 1672. The country of Prussia was called after its original people, but it was German speaking, and of Germanic culture. After World War II, the whole German speaking population was exiled to Siberia or Kazakhstan, or dispersed from the land. Russians ascribed this territory to themselves and settled it with a Russian population. To whom this land really belongs is unclear. The hostless land is in a shambles. It bemoans its original people.

Sources:
Guy Stair Sainty The Teutonic Order of the Holy Mary in Jerusalem
Urban, William. The Prussian Crusade
Williamson, Ruth The Baltic Crusade
Trinkunas, Jonas &ldquoThe Path of the Ancient Religion of Lithuanians&rdquo, 2009
Suziedelis, Simas "Herkus Mantas", 1978.
Nikzentaitis, Alvydas &ldquoThe History of Samogitia&rdquo, 1998.


Synopsis – Odyssey Summary

Ten years after the Fall of Troy, and twenty years after the Greek hero Odysseus first set out from his home in Ithaca to fight with the other Greeks against the Trojans, Odysseus’ son Telemachus and his wife Penelope are beset with over a hundred suitors who are trying to persuade Penelope that her husband is dead and that she should marry one of them.

Encouraged by the goddess Athena (always Odysseus’ protector), Telemachus sets out to look for his father, visiting some of Odysseus’ erstwhile companions such as Nestor, Menelaus and Helen, who have long since arrived home. They receive him sumptuously and recount the ending of the Trojan War, including the story of the wooden horse. Menelaus tells Telemachus that he has heard that Odysseus is being held captive by the nymph Calypso.

The scene then changes to Calypso’s island, where Odysseus has spent seven years in captivity. Calypso is finally persuaded to release him by Hermes and Zeus, but Odysseus’ makeshift boat is wrecked by his nemesis Poseidon, and he swims ashore onto an island. He is found by the young Nausicaa and her handmaidens and is made welcome by King Alcinous and Queen Arete of the Phaeacians, and begins to tell the amazing story of his return from Troy.

Odysseus tells how he and his twelve ships were driven off course by storms, and how they visited the lethargic Lotus-Eaters with their memory-erasing food, before being captured by the giant one-eyed cyclops Polyphemus (Poseidon’s son), only escaping after he blinded the giant with a wooden stake. Despite the help of Aeolus, King of the Winds, Odysseus and his crew were blown off course again just as home was almost in sight. They narrowly escaped from the cannibal Laestrygones, only to encounter the witch-goddess Circe soon after. Circe turned half of his men into swine, but Odysseus had been pre-warned by Hermes and made resistant to Circe’s magic.

After a year of feasting and drinking on Circe’s island, the Greeks again set off, reaching the western edge of the world. Odysseus made a sacrifice to the dead and summoned the spirit of the old prophet Tiresias to advise him, as well as the spirits of several other famous men and women and that of his own mother, who had died of grief at his long absence and who gave him disturbing news of the situation in his own household.

Advised once more by Circe on the remaining stages of their journey, they skirted the land of the Sirens, passed between the many-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, and, blithely ignoring the warnings of Tiresias and Circe, hunted down the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios. For this sacrilege, they were punished by a shipwreck in which all but Odysseus himself drowned. He was washed ashore on Calypso’s island, where she compelled him to remain as her lover.

By this point, Homer has brought us up to date, and the remainder of the story is told straightforwardly in chronological order.

Having listened with rapt attention to his story, the Phaeacians agree to help Odysseus get home, and they finally deliver him one night to a hidden harbour on his home island of Ithaca. Disguised as a wandering beggar and telling a fictitious tale of himself, Odysseus learns from a local swineherd how things stand in his household. Through Athena’s machinations, he meets up with his own son, Telemachus, just returning from Sparta, and they agree together that the insolent and increasingly impatient suitors must be killed. With more help from Athena, an archery competition is arranged by Penelope for the suitors, which the disguised Odysseus easily wins, and he then promptly slaughters all the other suitors.

Only now does Odysseus reveal and prove his true identity to his wife and to his old father, Laertes. Despite the fact that Odysseus has effectively killed two generations of the men of Ithaca (the shipwrecked sailors and the executed suitors), Athena intervenes one last time and finally Ithaca is at peace once more.


What Challenges Did Odysseus Face?

Odysseus faced a number of obstacles on his way home from the Trojan War that Poseidon, god of the sea, placed in his way. After the end of the war, Odysseus was standing on a cliff, overlooking the sea, praising himself for his cunning in fooling the Trojans with the wooden horse that contained Greek soldiers. Poseidon heard him and was angry at Odysseus' arrogance.

The reason for Poseidon's anger was that it was the sea serpent eating the sons of the Trojan priest Laocoon that convinced the Trojans to take the horse inside their walls before the serpent appeared, they were prepared to destroy it. Odysseus did not recognize this when he praised his own ingenuity.

As Odysseus left Troy, his ship was hit by storms at every turn, as Poseidon was determined to keep him from getting home. He ended up on the island of Circe and had to go to Hades to consult Tiresias, the blind prophet, as to the best way to get home. He also landed on the island of the Cyclops Polyphemus, also Poseidon's son. When Odysseus blinded the Cyclops, Poseidon's rage was further increased. Finally shipwrecked on the island of Calypso, Odysseus built a raft and ended up floating to the land of the Phaeacians. Ironically, Poseidon was the patron of these seafarers, but they ended up giving Odysseus a safe journey home, where he faced the final challenge of fighting off the suitors who had been trying to woo his wife for the decades he had been gone.


3 Lessons From Homer’s Odyssey

My favorite Homeric epic is the Odyssey . I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read it. While the Odysse y is certainly a great adventure story, that’s not why I keep returning to the text. I re-read the Odyssey because Odysseus is such a relatable character. Unlike Achilles, the protagonist of Homer’s other great Greek epic, who’s blessed with god-like strength and skill, and focused on the singular purpose of martial glory, Odysseus is entirely mortal and faced with complex tasks: he must balance the roles of warrior and king with those of father, son, and husband journey through an uncertain world and survive and thrive by relying on his wits — his mētis or “cunning intelligence.”

Odysseus thus has much to teach the modern man, who’s also trying to do his best by his loved ones and resourcefully navigate a landscape of twists and turns. You could in fact fill a whole book with the lessons to be learned from the Odyssey . Below I share the three that most stand out to me every time I read this ancient epic.

Practice Manly Hospitality

The Odyssey is the tale of a warrior’s heroic journey, but it’s also an ancient guide to etiquette. While we often think of the idea of being a well-mannered “gentleman” as a 19th century, Victorian concept, a similar idea existed in antiquity (even amongst the famously fierce Spartans ). A central tenet of the Greeks’ particular code of honor-based etiquette concerned the relationship between host and guest, and appears as one of the most primary and pervasive themes in the Odyssey .

The ancient Greeks had a single word to describe the relationship between a guest and a host: xenia . It’s often translated as hospitality, but it was a hospitality that not only dictated how a host should treat a guest, but also how a guest should treat his host it was a reciprocal code of manners.

So what did a man have to do to practice good xenia ?

Well, a host was expected to welcome into his home anyone who came knocking. Before a host could even ask a guest his name or where he was from, he was to offer the stranger food, drink, and a bath. Only after the guest finished his meal could the host start asking about the visitor’s identity. After the guest ate, the host was expected to offer him a place to sleep. When he was ready to leave, the host was obligated to give his guest gifts and provide him safe escort to his next destination.

Guests in turn were expected to be courteous and respectful towards their host. During their stay, they were not to make demands or be a burden. Guests were expected to ply the host and his household with stories from the outside world. The most important expectation was that the guest would offer his host the same hospitable treatment if he ever found himself journeying in the guest’s homeland.

Once you understand xenia, you start seeing it everywhere in the Odyssey , and notice that trust, stability, and flourishing follow its practice, while misfortune and discord result from its disregard.

Circe turning Odysseus’ men into pigs? Poor xenia .

Odysseus and his men rolling uninvited into the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus and eating his goat cheese without asking, and Polyphemus in turn eating Odysseus’ men instead of offering them a snack? Bad xenia on both sides.

The suitors mooching off of Odysseus’ wealth and trying to hook up with his wife while Odysseus was away? An example of really bad xenia . . . for which they would duly receive their comeuppance.

Examples of good xenia also abound in the poem. It can be seen when Odysseus’ son Telemachus visits Nestor, and Nestor welcomes him with proper hospitality . Odysseus’ loyal swineherd, Eumaeus, exemplifies the quality when he kindly receives Odysseus, even though he doesn’t realize it’s his old master, returned in the disguise of a beggar Odysseus reciprocates his xenia by telling Eumaeus that he won’t get in the way and will earn his keep. The Phaeacians displayed xenia par excellence when they brought in a naked and shipwrecked Odysseus, bathed him, fed him, put on some athletic games, and then sent him on his way towards Ithaca with lots of golden goodies.

The importance of a strict code of hospitality in the ancient world makes sense when you think about what traveling was like back then. There weren’t any McDonald’s or La Quintas along the roads where you could stop to eat, shower, and sleep. Your safety and well-being while traveling depended on the generosity of complete strangers. You brought in a stranger and treated him well as a host because in the back of your mind, you knew that one day you could be the stranger asking for a place to crash.

While we don’t need to rely on xenia to travel anymore, we’d all be better off if we found ways to live up to its ethos in our day-to-day interactions. Life is just a lot more pleasant and edifying when strangers approach each other with a sense of mutual respect and a “do unto others” spirit of hospitality.

The best way to live both sides of xenia is actually to approach every interaction thinking of yourself as the “host,” even if the dynamic is on equal footing or you are technically the guest of someone else. Whether in terms of actual stays in people’s homes, or simple meetings on the street, you’ll never be a bad “guest” when you always try to be a good “host.” When you perennially see yourself in the host role, you look for ways to ease the burdens of others and make everyone feel welcome, comfortable — “at-home” (even when out and about). You offer social gifts in the form of appreciation, elevation, connection, and enlightenment , so that others walk away feeling filled and leave your orbit better off than when they arrived.

The Odyssey reminds us that everyone is on a long journey, and that we ought to act as way stations for each other, providing the warmth and sustenance folks need to continue on their way.

Boys Need Strong Male Mentors

The most egregious example of lousy xenia in the Odyssey is that of the suitors camping out at Odysseus’ house, eating his food, and waiting for his wife Penelope to pick one of them to be her new husband so they could become the ruler of Ithaca. They treated Odysseus’ servants like garbage and showed no respect to the rightful heir, Telemachus.

Who were these good-for-nothing’s who disregarded the sacred obligations of xenia ?

Didn’t their fathers teach them to be better than that?

Because the shameless suitors were likely fatherless sons.

We have to remember that Odysseus had been gone for 20 years — ten years battling in Troy and ten years trying to make it back home after the war.

When Odysseus signed on to fight in the Trojan War two decades earlier, he likely brought along most of Ithaca’s able-bodied men to fight with him. A lot of those men probably had young children — many of them boys — that they left with their wives when they marched off to battle.

None of Odysseus’ men made it back home after the Trojan War. So most of the young men in Ithaca likely grew up without a father to show them how to be proper Ithacan gentlemen. Consequently, those fatherless boys probably grew up to become those contemptible, deadbeat suitors. As the theologian Douglas Wilson once said, “If boys don’t learn, men won’t know.”

We’ve written about the important role male mentors play in initiating young men into manhood . Adult men check the shadow side of the emerging masculine energy of adolescent boys, while also teaching them how to harness that energy towards positive ends. Without that tempering and guidance, burgeoning masculine energy can be outwardly destructive and inwardly immolating.

The suitors were the suitors because they didn’t have adult men to shepherd them into manhood.

But what about Telemachus? His dad, Odysseus, wasn’t around when he was growing up, and yet he still matured into a fine young man. Well, it’s likely that his venerable mother, Penelope, kept the memory of his father alive in their home, offered a vision of what noble manliness looked like, and taught Telemachus the kinds of things Odysseus would have wanted him to know.

Nonetheless, even Telemachus felt his lack of masculine nurturing, and still experienced a “father wound.” When he came of age, he set out to learn more about his nature and his telos or aim as a man. Telemachus went in search of his father literally and figuratively his search for Odysseus was also the search for his own manhood.

Telemachus had mentors to help him along this journey. He visited Odysseus’ old war buddies Nestor and Menelanous to find out what happened to his father. They both treated Telemachus with proper xenia. They modeled what strong, yet mannered manhood looked like. While Nestor and Menelanous couldn’t tell Telemachus where his father was, they did tell him about Odysseus’ glorious deeds. They refined Telemachus’ model of manhood even more.

While not many sons today have lost their fathers to war, they are often essentially fatherless for other reasons, and feel the lack of this rearing in ways both subtle and overt. If you were fortunate enough to be raised well by your dad, seek not only to mentor your own sons in the way of honorable manhood, but to offer some masculine nurturing to these young (and not-so-young) men in your community. It takes a village to raise worthy men. Get involved in the lives of others step into the arena of public life. Show boys what it means to be both a good man and good at being a man , lest we raise our own generation of ravenous suitors.

For a Strong Marriage, Find a Like-Minded Wife

People tend to forget this, but we actually don’t meet Odysseus until Book V of the Odyssey .

And when we do meet him, he’s looking out into the ocean, weeping.

That’s an interesting way to introduce an audience to an epic hero.

For the past seven years, Odysseus has been held captive on an island by the nymph Calypso. Every day for the better part of a decade, Odysseus has been having sex with a beautiful goddess. He eats the food of the gods. He’s safe. He’s got everything he needs. He’s living the stereotypical dude dream. So why is he so sad?

Because he misses his wife, Penelope.

When Odysseus tells Calypso this, she reminds Odysseus that Penelope is mortal. She’s gotten older in the past twenty years. She’s lost her youthful allure. She probably has some wrinkles, crow’s feet, and gray hair.

Calypso, on the other hand, is immortal. She’ll always be nubile and smokin’ hot. What’s more, Calypso tells Odysseus, she’ll give him immortality, so they can spend the rest of eternity together fulfilling his every carnal desire. She details the risks and dangers he’ll face as he sets out to reunite with his older, saggier, ordinary wife. He might die on his journey back home to Penelope. And for what?

Yet Odysseus is unpersuaded by Calypso’s argument he would rather take the risk of trying to get back to his mortal wife than spend eternity in placating enchantment with a sensual nymph. Having spent seven years knocking boots with a goddess, and finding that he’s still depressed, Odysseus knows he wants more in a relationship.

He wants to be with someone who’s like-minded .

The Greek word for like-minded is homophrosyne , and it’s used throughout the Odyssey to describe the relationship between Odysseus and his wife Penelope.

Like Odysseus, Penelope is savvy and clever. For years, she is able to fend off her suitors by promising to choose one of them after she finishes weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus’ elderly father Laretes. While she appears to work on the shroud each day, each night she undoes her progress so that the task will never be completed.

That’s what Odysseus misses about Penelope — her psyche and spirit. Nothing, not even eternal nymph sex, could replace the connection which exists between two like-minded lovers.

We see the value Odysseus lends to this kind of kinship when he washes up on the shore of the Phaeacians and princess Nausicaa helps him out. In return, Odysseus wishes life’s greatest reward for her — a spouse with whom she is equally yoked:

Nothing stronger or better than that–
When a man and wife hold their home together
Alike in mind: great trouble to their foes,
A joy to their friends, the source of their renown

The like-mindedness of Penelope and Odysseus is also displayed in the aftermath of the latter’s homecoming. Odysseus, with the help of his son, slaughters all the suitors for their violation of xenia. After the bodies are taken away, and the blood’s mopped up, Odysseus waits for Penelope to come out of her room so they can commence their joyful reunion. But Penelope isn’t sure that Odysseus really is Odysseus, so she comes up with a clever test to verify his identity.

When Odysseus asks for a bed in which to sleep, Penelope coyly responds by telling her servant to move her own bed from her room and make it up for him.

Odysseus, who is already vexed that Penelope doesn’t believe he is who he says he is, now explodes with indignation:

Woman –your words, they cut me to the core!
Who could move my bed? Impossible task,
even for some skilled craftsman –unless a god
came down in person, quick to lend a hand,
lifted it out with ease and moved it elsewhere. . . .

a great sign, a hallmark lies in its construction.
I know, I built it myself –no one else. . . .
There was a branching olive-tree inside our court,
grown to its full prime, the bole like a column, thickset.
Around it I built my bedroom, finished off the walls
with a good tight stonework, roofed it over soundly
and added doors, hung well and snuggly wedged.
Then I lopped the leafy crown of the olive,
clean-cutting the stump bare from roots up,
planing it round with a bronze smoothing-adze —
I had the skill –I shaped it plumb to the like to make
my bedpost, bored the holes it needed with an auger.
Working from there I built my bed, start to finish . . .
There’s our secret sign, I tell you, our life story!

Once Penelope hears Odysseus reveal the secret of their unique marital bed, a secret they shared between themselves alone, her knees give way and she begins to sob, knowing that the man before her is truly her long-lost husband. She facilitated this revelation with a test, a trick, something her husband might have done too.

The layers of homophrosyne don’t end there. The shared secret of Penelope and Odysseus’ bed is itself a symbol of their like-mindedness. Relationships are made up of such intimate secrets inside jokes, pet names, and private memories create an interwoven world that no one on the outside can ever fully enter. When a couple stops creating this entwined universe, their relationship starts to deteriorate.

When Penelope and Odysseus finally reunite in bed, the gods make the night last longer than usual. Why? Well, so they can make plenty of love, of course. But they also spend the night just talking to each other, sharing their thoughts. Penelope tells him her stories of fending off the suitors with her wiles, and Odysseus tells her his stories of using his cunning to make it back home. They use the night to re-fuse themselves in both body, and mind.

Nothing is stronger or better than that.

Check out my podcast about what Homer’s Odyssey can teach us today:


The strange inspirations behind Greek myths

There are many strange stories in Odysseus's long journey home after the sack of Troy, but where do they come from?

Many of us know the well-told ancient Greek story with the wooden horse, but how well do you know its sequel? Homer's Odyssey recounts what happened after the sack of Troy, specifically Odysseus's epic voyage home. It might be fictional but according to the experts it still provides valuable insights into the reality of life in ancient times, including the flora and fauna.

Our hero's return encompasses ten years of island-hopping troubled by vengeful gods, ravenous monsters, seductive nymphs and trippy spells. It is a classic tale that has fascinated scholars since it was published in the 8th Century BC.

In true scientific style, researchers have scoured the text for meaning and dedicated themselves to explaining the most striking parts of the story. In some cases, the truth is remarkably close to the fiction.

Lotus eaters

One of the early wrong turns comes when strong northerly winds carry Odysseus off course to the land of the lotus-eaters. The sailors enjoy the local delicacy so much that they forget about returning home and Odysseus has to drag them back to the ships. There are multiple theories for what the lotus could be, such as strong wine or opium.

Another contender is a plant called Diospyros lotus &ndash the scientific name means "fruit of the gods". The fruits in question are round and yellow with succulent flesh that is said to taste like a cross between a date and a plum. That explains its common name: "date plum". But could tasty fruit be enough to convince Odysseus's men to stay put forever?

After a rough journey the hospitality and nutrition would no doubt be welcome, but another candidate for the irresistible lotus could explain its appeal. In his book The Lotus Quest plant expert Mark Griffiths identifies Homer's fruit as Ziziphus lotus, a jujube that reputedly has psychoactive properties.

Both species are well known at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in London, but experts there put forward another possibility &ndash the water lily (Nymphaea sp.) that grows along the Nile.

This plant was frequently depicted in ancient Egyptian art and the blue variety (N. caerulea) is particularly known as a narcotic. Consuming the plant is said to induce a state of peaceful apathy and it is classed as a banned substance in some European countries today. Whether its reputation was enough for Homer to have got wind of it on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea remains to be debated.

Searching for supplies on another island, Odysseus and some of his crew encounter Polyphemus, a man-eating giant. Several sailors perish before Odysseus eventually manages to blind the monster with a single stake to his only eye.

Possessing just one eye is a rarity among creatures with a backbone. In mammals, cyclopia is described as a congenital disorder where the orbits of the eyes fail to develop into two separate cavities. Associated complications for the brain, nose and respiratory system mean few born with the condition survive.

To address the "giant" aspect of the mythical cyclops, historian Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University, US, suggests the fossilised remains of ancient species could have provided inspiration. As farmers, the ancient Greeks would have explored the landscape and could have made some unusual discoveries. In particular, the skulls of dwarf elephants and mammoths have an enlarged nasal cavity that could have been mistaken for the sole eye-socket of a beastly foe.

"Island caves do contain the unfamiliar fossils of dwarf mammoths, surrounded by heaps of mammal bones that in antiquity were taken as the bones of the one-eyed giant's victims," says Mayor.

Adrian Lister, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum, London, confirms that the remains of dwarf elephants have been found on many of the islands in the Mediterranean. He explains that the 10-tonne, 4-metre-high elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus would have travelled from the mainland to the islands at times of low sea level. Once isolated, the elephants had to adapt to survive with less space and food and so became dwarfed.

"In Sicily we have fossils of at least three different sizes of dwarf elephants," says Lister. "The smallest &ndash Palaeoloxodon falconeri &ndash were among the smallest found anywhere. Many other islands in the Mediterranean have a similar story &ndash P. antiquus got dwarfed to greater or lesser degrees. We find the dwarf elephants on Malta, Crete, Cyprus and several of the smaller Greek islands. Dwarf mammoths are rarer but we have them on Crete and Sardinia. For both the mammoths and the straight-tusked elephants, the smallest are around 1.2m (shoulder height) and 120 kg."

Circe's magic

When they are swept into the company of the sorceress Circe, the adventurers are drugged and penned up like swine. Fortunately Odysseus is protected from her spell by eating a holy herb called moly.

Botanists point to jimson weed (Datura stramonium) as the ingredient that makes the sailors act so strangely. The plant is related to belladonna and deadly nightshade, and contains toxic alkaloids that block neurotransmitters in the brain. If ingested, it causes hallucinations, delirium and amnesia as the brain struggles to send and receive messages.

Homer is quite specific in his description of moly: it has a black root and white flower. But that in itself is not an uncommon combination, so there has been much discussion over its identity. Based on its ability to neutralise the drug Circe dishes out, researchers believe the snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is another very likely candidate.

The flower was known to grow in the region and contains the substance galantamine, which counteracts the effects of stramonium poisoning. Scientists have been studying it since the 1950s. It is now used in the treatment of Alzheimer's and dementia, because it can help to balance chemicals in the brain.

The sailors take on even more terrible opponents when they pass through a narrow channel. They are confronted by Scylla, a multi-headed monster with attitude. Homer describes this cave-dwelling beast as possessing 12 legs and six necks, each with a ferocious man-eating head that sports three-rows of teeth.

Over time Scylla has been conflated with the kraken &ndash all those necks and legs could after all, be tentacles. But giant squid are a rarity in the Mediterranean and besides, Scylla lives in a cave halfway up a cliff, which is no place for any ocean species.

Polycephaly is the biological term for having multiple heads. While it is rare in humans, it happens more frequently among reptiles. Damage to the embryo is thought to cause cells to duplicate so two heads grow, or to fuse so that twin embryos become partially combined.

Aristotle recorded a two-headed snake in 350 BC and the oldest surviving evidence is an embryonic lizard fossil from the Cretaceous of China. While the condition is often life-limiting for wild animals, it is possible Homer may have heard of it, or even witnessed it.

Then there is the use of snakes as biological weapons. There is at least one historical record of snakes being unleashed during a naval battle, by Hannibal fighting the Eumenes. Zoologist Gianni Insacco of Milan's Natural History Museum suggests the ancient Greeks might have employed this tactic too. He was part of the team that rediscovered the Javelin sand boa in Sicily, a species thought to have been introduced to the island by the Greeks for ritual and warfare purposes.

While there is no known Scylla monster, the poet skillfully combined stressed sailors, our unease with unusual biological development and the threat of snakes to create a monstrous cocktail.

Odysseus and his crew are officially between a rock and a hard place, because opposite Scylla lies Charybdis. This monstrous whirlpool regularly drinks down sea water and anything sailing upon it.

It might surprise you to learn that Charybdis was marked on naval charts into the 19th Century, just off the north-east tip of Sicily in the Strait of Messina. As a narrow passageway between the island of Sicily and the Italian peninsula, the area is well known for its strong winds and currents.

But it is the tidal activity in the strait that makes it a challenge for sailors. The tides in the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north of the channel are out of phase with the tides in the Ioanian Sea to the south. This results in turbulent water where they meet.

A submarine ridge in the Messina Straits also contributes to the turmoil, as currents pull cold water from the depths to the surface. Depending on the tidal activity, bore waves appear as well as whirlpools, also called vertical eddies. According to oceanographers, one of the larger ones develops off Capo del Faro, the place where Charybdis was historically marked.

While these hazards are navigable for most modern-day watercraft, they would have been riskier in Homer's time.

Cattle of the Sun

Odysseus and his crew eventually land on the island of Thrinacia, where the Sun god grazes his cattle. These animals are sacred but that does not stop the foolhardy crew hunting them when their supplies run short.

Academics have suggested that the island could be modern-day Sicily. There is evidence of both domesticated cattle and their wild relatives, aurochs (Bos primigenius) at Neolithic sites there, according to historian Jeremy McInernery of the University of Pennsylvania, US.

Of these two species, the wild aurochs is the more striking. It stood 1.5m at the withers (the highest part of its back) and certainly had the "broad brow" and large "curving horns" described by Homer. Also, cattle were highly valued in ancient Greece.

"Evidence from many sites shows that in the Iron Age cattle were highly prized: for meat, for traction, and for by-products such as leather and probably tallow," says McInerney. "Before coinage reached Greece in the 6th Century, cattle were a primary measure of wealth. In common with other pastoral societies, the Greeks prized cattle wealth: hence the emphasis on cattle raiding in the epic poems."

The punishment for pinching the Sun's cattle is therefore suitably brutal. Zeus destroys the ships and sailors with a thunderbolt and only Odysseus survives to tell his epic tale. Evidently, it is one we are still learning from today.

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